America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)



All the President’s Instincts

10 May 2017

Not only is he very instinctual, but ”my instinct turns out to be right”. The president said so himself, in the memorable Time magazine interview with Michael Scherer; the one including “I’m president, you’re not”. Very could be the key word in Trump’s proclamation, because the president’s instincts go forward and backward as well as applying to the moment he utters or tweets them. He has seen things invisible to others; Muslims dancing on rooftops and millions of aliens casting ballots against him. He is also able to predict events like Brexit and Scandinavian terror attacks, all accomplished by his extraordinary instinctual powers. Had he been born a century earlier, he might have been a spiritualist, tapping on a Ouija board, performing automatic writing, and levitating. Those spiritualists were also guided by spontaneous instincts. Imagine State Dinners followed by a lively séance and the host floating above the tables; demonstrating his amazing instinctualism.

Purely instinctive behavior has an extremely short list of proven examples. Those are denial, revenge, tribal loyalty, greed, and the urge to procreate, the only genetically hard-wired behaviors that have survived. All, except the desire to procreate, are clearly undesirable. Just suppose a person somehow managed to maintain all those instincts into his adult life. No, better not.

Apparently instinctualism is contagious, because Counselor Conway had a vision of a massacre in Bowling Green, a state previously famous for the Festival of Blue Grass Music, the Kentucky Derby and Steven Foster’s ode to My Old Kentucky Home.  Cabinet appointees are also showing worrisome early symptoms. A Secretary of Education doesn’t believe schools need to be public. An instinct has convinced her. The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Act is a climate change denier who dismisses tornados, hurricanes and global warming as merely nasty weather, bound to improve on its own. Trump’s Housing and Urban Development appointee is a retired neurosurgeon who considers housing useful and probably necessary; urban development something that may happen naturally.       

Sadly for the Instinctual population among us, most contemporary behaviorists believe that humans lose their instincts as soon as they begin learning responses. Spiders retain the ability to spin webs, birds continue to build nests, and bears remember to hibernate, but people replace instincts only after experience. Humans haven’t shaken themselves after a swim or a shower ever since their fur was replaced by bare skin. They grab a towel, (though behaviorists have not decided whether towels appeared before or after stone tools).

A majority of both psychologists and behaviorists do agree that the president’s decisions and choices must be reflexes, since instincts disappeared millennia ago. People have impulses, compulsions and cravings, but their instincts are gone. The strictest behaviorists allow humans only a single genuine instinct; the contraction of the pupils in our eyes to brilliant light. That’s wonderful, but hardly something to brag about.

A small group of more generous specialists in the field grant people sneezing, blushing, yawning and laughing when tickled, but now those few are vastly outnumbered by the scientists and psychologists who won’t even give us an instinctive hiccup. Sneezing scatters germs, but even extreme cases can be managed with Kleenex and Benadryl. Blushing is briefly embarrassing for the blusher, but does no lasting damage. Yawning is known to be highly contagious, with one yawn able to produce an entire auditorium of people with their hands over their mouths. Excessive tickling can quickly turn from fun into torture. These are the last of the fairly good instincts, and that’s only if sneezing, blushing, yawning and tickling are included.

Though newborn infants will grasp their tiny fists around an object touching their palms, even nursing requires a bit of trial and error before it’s established. Once that happens, infants have learned something essential. After that, nursing becomes a reflex. According to the behaviorists, reflexes are unvarying behavior that does not have to be relearned because it becomes fully functional the first time it’s successfully performed. Talents, desires and abilities aren’t instinctual, but acquired only by experience, education and imitation.

Animals can keep their instincts for a lifetime because they never have to think about consequences. Apparently animals lack our capacity for anxiety. Reflexes, instinct’s reckless successors, can be risky, wayward, and downright perilous, carrying traces of their instinctual origins for decades. Just look at a schoolyard during recess. At least four examples of purely instinctive behavior are right out in the open, inspiring a summons to the Principal’s office followed by suspension or expulsion.

The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language defines  reflexual  as “an action performed without conscious thought as an automatic response to a stimulus”. Reflexes seize absolute control, with the ability to react faster than the mind.  Everything else is learned, or it isn’t.  

Elaine KendallA journalist and playwright, Elaine’s books of American cultural history were published by Little, Brown, Putnam and Capra; her plays by Samuel French, Smith & Kraus and Art Age. Musical plays are An American Cantata; The Would-be Diva; Isadora! and COLE and WILL: Together Again! Non-musical dramas are The Chameleon; Two Margarets; The Trial of Mata Hari and The Nominee. The “I” Word; Gun Show Follies and Secrets of the Showroom are short comedies. She has written for many national magazines; The New York Times and the LA Times. Current articles appear monthly in the aptly-named online journal The Satirist.